Canada's budget to make significant investments in basic science and research

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Canada's research community has long yearned for a consequential funding boost for science – and 2018 is poised to be its year.

The Liberal government's federal budget, now believed to be only a few weeks away, is expected to contain a major financial lift for basic scientific research across the country – one that will address some of the concerns laid out last year in a national review of the state of fundamental science.

That exercise, led by former University of Toronto president David Naylor, recommended the government end a long stretch of underfunding with phased-in investments over four years, until there's $1.3 billion more for researchers, scholarships and facilities.

It remains to be seen how much spending the budget will contain, and for how long. The Naylor report calls for a steady increase in funding for scientific endeavours, with a particular focus on federal granting councils, which oversee the distribution of federal grants to researchers.

The report is calling on the government to gradually add $485 million a year to its annual funding allotment for granting councils.

Government sources suggest the budget is unlikely to include a point-by-point endorsement of the Naylor report, but it is expected to contain a major increase for granting councils as well as significant investments in science, in general.

One source, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss plans not yet public, said the commitments are likely to be organized in the budget based on scientific theme, rather than the model in the Naylor report.

In recent weeks, confidence has begun to spread in the halls of academia. Leaders from the research community say they continue to see promising signals from the government.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau has said a "key element" in his budget, which is expected before the end of March, will focus on science and how it can play a role in building a solid economic foundation over the long term. In December, he held a roundtable with leading researchers and met with members of the review panel, including Naylor himself.

Science Minister Kirsty Duncan, who commissioned the Naylor report, couldn't share details of the budget, but she called the review "really important."

Duncan also acknowledged that funding is an issue – as well as governance, equity and diversity, early career research and ensuring a more nimble, responsive system is in place to improve funding.

"We are a government that's committed to science and research, and we have a finance minister who's listening," Duncan said in an interview.

Paul Davidson, president of Universities Canada, said the most urgent need is the additional funding for granting councils.

"The community is looking for a strong embrace of the Naylor report, a significant investment in the Naylor report and a clear trajectory on the spending," Davidson said.

"The signals are encouraging. It's not over until it's over, there's still more work to be done."

Davidson also said the government appears to be on track to address another request in the report, which is to provide the Canadian Foundation for Innovation with reliable funding by entrenching its base support in the annual budget.

The 20-year-old program, which helps facilities pay for infrastructure, labs and equipment, has been operating on the basis of notoriously uncertain grant funding, often at the whim of governments, every few years.

The research community also has expectations the budget could include new efforts to support emerging and Indigenous researchers, help advance the role of women and improve collaboration on international research.

McGill University's Martha Crago, a member of Naylor's panel, said in an interview she's hoping for a meaningful, multi-year commitment to science. With economic uncertainties, such as the renegotiation of NAFTA, the government needs to take a responsible approach, she acknowledged.

"On the other hand, the economy is strong," said Crago, McGill's vice-principal for research and innovation.

"So, we would expect to have money coming and I would expect it to be in exactly those areas that were articulated in the Naylor report, because the community has really been able to get behind that."

Canadian Association of University Teachers executive director David Robinson and Canadian Alliance of Student Associations executive director Michael McDonald say the report helped form a unified pre-budget push.

"We are hoping to see that translate into dollars this year," McDonald said. "We're going to keep our fingers crossed."

However, there are concerns the feds might focus too closely on basic research and overlook another segment of Canadian science: applied research.

Applied research focuses on practical science, including the development of new products and processes that can support the growth of innovative businesses. Much of that applied science is conducted at colleges and polytechnic institutes.

Nobina Robinson, the chief executive officer of Polytechnics Canada, said such institutions are only eligible for 1.7 per cent of the annual federal funding available for research and development – about $53 million a year, a sum she said she'd like to see doubled.

"I don't really care for this discussion around unfettered research versus applied research," Robinson said.

"A G7 country should be able to do both."